When the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, conditions of the agreement demanded the entire German U-Boat fleet be surrendered and confiscated immediately.
But the Allies had not yet decided what to do with the surface ships of the German High Seas Fleet.
It was decided that they should be interned in Allied or neutral ports until their fate could be agreed during peace negotiations.
British Admiral Sir David Beatty presented the terms of the surrender to German Rear Admiral Hugo Meurer and other officers aboard his flagship, the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth on the night of 15 - 16 November, 1918.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, Beatty was in charge of ensuring the surrender of 74 German ships for internment, checking they had been disarmed, and escorting them to be laid up.
This mission was codenamed Operation ZZ.
North Sea Rendezvous
Admiral Franz Ritter von Hipper, commander of the German fleet, refused to hand his ships over to Beatty, and delegated this task to Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter.
On 19 November the fleet of German warships led by von Reuter in his flagship, the battleship Friedrich der Grösse, left Germany to rendezvous with Beatty’s ships in the North Sea.
At the rendezvous the ships formed up as required and the joint convoy of 191 Allied and 70 German vessels that sailed into the Firth of Forth, Scotland, on 21 November 1918 was the largest fleet of warships ever assembled.
Once all the German ships had dropped anchor, Beatty gave the signal that the German flag was to be hauled down at sunset and not to be raised again without permission - a controversial move given the ships remained the property of Germany during internment.
Disarmament and Escort to the Orkneys
Once checks that disarmament had been carried out had been completed, the German ships sailed under heavy Allied escort between 25 – 27 November for internment at the massive natural harbour at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
Three more ships would join them a short time after, and the 74th and final ship to arrive was the flagship of the High Seas Fleet, the dreadnought battleship Baden in January 1919, fulfilling the 74 ships required according to the terms of the internment.
The Rear Admiral’s Unenviable Duty
For Rear Admiral von Reuter, command of his fleet was a difficult task from the outset.
Many among his crews had experienced long periods of inactivity since the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and had been laid up in port on board the ships subsisting on limited rations caused by blockades.
With the end of the war in sight, in October 1918 Grand Admiral Reinhardt Scheer planned an unsanctioned operation to send his fleet to inflict as much damage to the Royal Navy as possible, arguing: ‘There can be no future for a fleet fettered by a dishonourable peace.’
In other words, because Germany had not been defeated militarily, either on land or at sea, the navy should attempt a final attack to preserve its honour.
However it was also hoped a successful mission may have changed the military position to prevent surrender entirely, or else ensure more favourable Armistice terms.
For German sailors however, this was a suicide mission and one which would act only to extend the war, and they refused to follow orders to prepare for sea.
Protest and mutiny among sailors and industrial workers followed: a symptom of the broader problems the war and associated hardships had caused in Germany and elsewhere towards the end of the First World War.
This escalated into widespread revolt which resulted in the Socialists declaring Germany a republic on 9 November, followed by the exile and abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
It comes as no surprise therefore, that von Reuter’s already unenviable task of surrendering the fleet and commanding such despondent, unpredictable and in some cases, revolutionary crews was made more difficult when his ships were sent to Scapa Flow for internment (a port which was not neutral as originally agreed, but also in a very remote location).
Once at Scapa Flow most of von Reuter’s 20,000 men were gradually sent back to Germany, leaving a small number aboard the ships as caretaker crews.
Those who remained now found themselves indeterminately stranded aboard their ships with lack of supplies and no entertainment, which resulted in poor discipline and appalling living conditions.
A particularly troublesome group aboard von Reuter’s flagship became so unmanageable that they caused him to seek permission from the British to make his flagship the cruiser Emden instead
With no fresh meat supplies, and being forbidden to change ships or go ashore, the sailors sought their own recreation and food supplies.
Fishing was an ideal way to pass the time and supplement their diets, and on at least one German destroyer, the crew built a spring-loaded gun with which to kill seagulls to eat.
With the Paris Peace Conference discussions ongoing and the Treaty of Versailles delayed until the end of June 1919, the Allies remained divided over the fate of the ships.
Most wanted a share for their navies, but Britain wanted the ships to be scrapped to prevent other nations from gaining naval superiority.
By May the ultimate fate of the German fleet was still to be decided. However the treaty did call for the surrender of the interned ships by 21 June.
On discovering this news, von Reuter planned to scuttle his fleet as he’d been ordered to in the event the ships were to be seized by the Allies.
Unknown to von Reuter, the deadline was subsequently extended to 23 June and in anticipation of scuttling, Rear Admiral Sydney Fremantle, commander of the 1st Battle Squadron at Scapa Flow guarding the German ships, had planned to seize them on 23 June on his return from seagoing exercises.
However on the morning of 21 June 1919, the British fleet left Scapa Flow for exercises, and von Reuter saw his chance.
He gave the order to scuttle and his crews opened seacocks, torpedo tubes and portholes on the ships to flood them and once again hoisted their flags of the Imperial German Navy.
When the small British force left behind by Fremantle to guard the German ships realised what was happening, they informed the main fleet and attempted to save some of the ships.
However only 22, including Emden, were successfully beached in shallow water.
Of the 74 German ships interned at Scapa Flow, 52 (or an equivalent of about 400,000 tons of material) were scuttled within five hours, representing the greatest loss of shipping in a single day in history.
This was also the day on which the final German casualties of the First World War were to be claimed, and although nobody drowned, nine sailors were shot and killed and sixteen were injured by the British during brawls when they refused to help save the ships.
Although von Reuter was accused of behaving without honour by a somewhat angry Fremantle before being taken prisoner along with almost 1,800 of his men, in Germany he was praised as the man who had preserved the honour of the High Seas Fleet.
He was released from imprisonment in Britain in 1920 and asked to resign as a naval officer a few months after his return to Germany due to the enforced reduction of the navy according to the Treaty of Versailles.
France and other Allied nations were furious at the scuttling because they wanted a share of the ships.
Britain joined in the condemnation. However there were some, including Admiral Wemyss, the man who had suggested the internment in the first place, who considered it a relief, arguing: ‘It disposes, once and for all, the thorny question of the redistribution of these ships.’
Salvage operations began in 1919 to remove the scuttled ships, which had prevented the use of piers and fishing stations, and were a hazard to shipping.
In the years that followed, most of the ships were purchased from the Admiralty to be raised and scrapped by various private companies, the most prolific being Ernest Cox of Cox and Danks Ltd., who purchased 28 ships and a floating dock with which to raise them. This dock had been seized from Germany as part of reparations for the scuttling and enabled Cox to raise 26 destroyers and eventually, the battlecruiser Hindenburg in 1930.
Of the 52 ships scuttled in 1919, seven remain at the bottom of the sea today. They are registered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, and provide some of the best shipwreck diving in Europe.